Tonya Boyd, New York Fire Department’s first black female deputy chief, discusses how she discovered her true passion ‘I wanted my work to show that I can work just as hard, if not harder than any man out there’

When Tonya Boyd took her first emergency medical technician (EMT) class in the mid-’90s, she had no idea that two decades later she’d be the first African-American female deputy chief of the New York Fire Department. At the time, Boyd was enrolled at Long Island University as a nursing student and decided to take a break from the program to tend to a family matter. Shortly afterward, Boyd says, she decided to take the EMT class as a favor to a friend.

“She asked me to take it with her so I could help drill her for the test, but I ended up really enjoying it,” Boyd said.

After the course, Boyd got a job with a private ambulance service. She applied for a position with the New York Fire Department in 1996 with the idea that it would be a brief pit stop before going back to nursing school.

“I intended to come to the department, work there for a year, then go back,” Boyd said. “My grandmother was a nurse, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. But after getting into the work and bonding with the people in the Fire Department, I fell in love with it. And here I am, 21 years later.”

But getting “here” wasn’t easy. Boyd was an EMT for seven years, then was encouraged to go through the paramedic program. After having that role for a while, Boyd successfully took the test to become lieutenant, a position she would hold for four years before being appointed to captain. She was only the second female captain on the Emergency Medical Services side of the department. Now, as deputy chief of the Fire Department of the City of New York, Boyd is assigned to Queens, where her primary responsibility is to respond to mass casualty incidents in that borough and oversee two EMS stations that consist of about 160 members.

Boyd’s promotion has been a source of inspiration for women all over the country, and it’s a distinction that she doesn’t take lightly.

“I really believe this promotion means a lot to the minority women in this department for one, who believed that the highest they could go was lieutenant,” Boyd said. “An overwhelming amount of women in various fields, not just in fire, have reached out to me and told me how much this has inspired them and encouraged them to reach higher. For me, that has been the biggest reward, getting the feedback from other women and knowing I’ve inspired them.”

It’s no secret that fire departments all over the country are male-dominated. When asked whether she felt it was challenging being so outnumbered by men in the department, Boyd pointed out that there are challenges on every job.

“There’s no question that us women are outnumbered, probably about 70/30, but you can’t look at it that way,” Boyd said. “It’s about doing a good job and being credible and reliable. I wanted my work to show that I can work just as hard, if not harder than any man out there.

“My mother would tell me not to focus on the negative, and to never let someone else’s negative become mine. I choose to focus on the positive, and that’s what has helped me. If you take everything personally, you’ll get caught up in the moment, and I didn’t want to get caught in the moment. I wanted to always move forward.”

Boyd attributes a great deal of her success to the men and women who served as mentors to her. One in particular was her dear friend Carene Brown, a former instructor in the department who is now deceased. Boyd says Brown, who died seven years ago, encouraged her to keep going further, taking more courses and learning more.

Working in emergency response for many years in New York, Boyd has seen some hard days, but none as hard as 9/11.

“It was the worst day of my life,” she recalled. “I worked the evening shift that day, and I remember so many in my department were missing. Imagine the people that you work with every day, that have become your family, the people you discuss the most personal things with. These people are now unaccounted for. It’s a tearing feeling in your chest, not knowing where they are.

“I lost a dear friend of mine that day, Ricardo [Quinn]. And a few months after that, my EMT partner committed suicide. We all believe it was delayed impact from that day. For most years, on 9/11, I stay home and make it a quiet and disconnected day. I don’t get on social media and I don’t watch television. It’ll always be such a somber day.”

Boyd says the best piece of advice she’s received, and the advice she’d pass on to any woman out there with big goals, came from her mother. “My mother always told me to hold my head high. When it came to this job, she always reminded me how intelligent I am, and how I’m just as good as anyone else. She’d tell me to ‘show them your heart’ and ‘do good in your actions.’ I would give the same advice to anyone else.”

One thing that is certain about Boyd — the medical field is her passion. When asked what she’d be doing if she wasn’t working in this capacity, she responded, “I’ve always loved animals, so I could definitely see myself working as a veterinarian.”

Boyd is buckling up for the new road ahead and planning to serve the citizens of Queens well as deputy chief, all while planning her September 2018 wedding with her fiancé, Edwin Laing.

SportsCenter’s ‘Gear Up,’ Week 8: Boston College honors 9/11 hero Welles Crowther with ‘Red Bandana’ While San Diego State pays tribute to the team’s biggest fan

In Week 7 of Gear Up — SportsCenter’s weekly segment previewing the best uniforms in college football — The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson breaks down the style combinations of Mississippi, Northern Colorado, Eastern Michigan, Boise State, San Diego State, Virginia and Boston College.

Learn why no jersey in the Ole Miss football program holds more meaning than the No. 38, and see the uniform combination Northern Colorado will break out for the first time. Eastern Michigan celebrates the 30th anniversary of its 1987 California Bowl team, and Boise State shows off the new Nike uniforms the team received this season. The Cavaliers keep Charlottesville, Virginia, close to their hearts with a #HoosTogether patch, while San Diego State honors the team’s biggest fan, Tom Ables, who died earlier this week. And each year, Boston College plays a “Red Bandana” game in tribute to former Eagles lacrosse player Welles Crowther, who lost his life while saving others during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Tune in to SportsCenter A.M. every Saturday morning during the college football season to watch Aaron show off the best uniforms of the week.

Ray Charles’ ‘America the Beautiful’ is our best hope for bringing us together If a patriotic song can divide us, this song can heal that divide

It would take a genius to ease the antagonisms surrounding the national anthem controversy. I know just the man for the job. His name is Ray Charles.

Often called “the Genius” during a long career, Ray Charles performed unique combinations of rock, country, rhythm and blues, soul, blues, jazz and gospel with such energy and style that he invited fans of one culture to cross over and taste the flavor of another. The fact that he was blind from childhood only added to the mystery of his mastery. He attracted appreciation from white folks and black folks, listeners from the country and the city, rich people and poor people, the up-and-coming and the down-and-out.

“This may sound like sacrilege,” said another piano man, Billy Joel, “but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley.”

I remember well the day he died: June 10, 2004. I was in New Orleans, scheduled to deliver a professional workshop on writing and music. A day earlier, a young woman slammed a car door on my left hand. When it was time for the workshop and I sat down at the piano, I learned the meaning of playing with pain. Using just one finger to play the bass notes, I offered my best tribute to Charles, brief versions of “What I Say” and “Georgia on My Mind.”

This tribute wasn’t planned, but I was inspired by what I had seen that morning on the news. It turns out that former President Ronald Reagan had died just five days before Charles. The two had a fine moment together during the final minutes of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Ray delivered his gospel version of “America the Beautiful.”

The effect was mesmerizing. While the crowd was overwhelmingly white, you could not help but notice a change in its demeanor. Some cried. Some swayed. Some nodded and looked up as if it were their first visit to a black church. The Reagans and the Bushes looked on with a curiosity that turned to warmth and then delight. When it was over, Reagan and Vice President George Bush climbed down to where Charles had been at the piano and lifted him up to the top of the stage, where the love of the crowd could wash over him.

Move forward now to Oct. 28, 2001. It is the second game of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees, a series delayed by the attacks of 9/11. The debris of the Twin Towers had fallen on a cross-section of Americans, and for a brief interval we were together in our misery, and resolved toward our recovery. Who better to express this emotion than the Genius. At a piano on home plate he once again performed “America the Beautiful.” As he sang and played with an easy soulful pace, people on the field, soldiers and first-responders unrolled a flag that covered the entire outfield. Cheers went up. When they created the illusion of the flag waving, cheers reached a crescendo. Charles rose from the piano bench. I am not sure I have ever seen a performer so moved by the response of an audience. It was almost a dance of delight, holding his face, hugging his body in recognition.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” have all made a claim to be America’s song. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Our national anthem (like the Pledge of Allegiance) too often carries with it a formalized test of patriotism: “Please rise and remove your caps …” (Hey, this is America. Don’t tell me what to do.)

Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is easier to sing, but it can be rendered and received in a way that seems cloyingly sentimental. Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to Berlin’s anthem, with choruses that focus on the poor and dispossessed who do not feel so blessed. To my ear, “America the Beautiful — at least the version rendered by Charles — exceeds all of them in its ability to raise our collective spirits.

It was not just this song that allowed Charles to use his powers for healing and reconciliation. In 1966, the Georgia State Assembly refused to seat an elected African-American, Julian Bond, because of his supposedly unpatriotic opposition to the Vietnam War. It took a unanimous Supreme Court decision to seat him.

Turn the calendar forward 13 years to March 7, 1979, to that same body. In what was considered a symbol of reconciliation and racial progress, Charles performed his version of the Hoagy Carmichael ballad “Georgia on My Mind.” At the end the assembly rose as one in tribute. The speaker honored him with having performed a miracle, bringing political antagonists in the legislature together. One month later, they voted to adopt Charles’ version as Georgia’s official state song.

The song “America the Beautiful has its own rich and complex history, giving Charles the artistic freedom to make it his own. That history begins in 1893 when a young English professor from Wellesley College, Katharine Lee Bates, makes a trip across the country to Colorado. From the top of Pikes Peak, she is inspired by natural beauty she has seen. To honor that vision, she composes a poem, America, published in a church magazine for the Fourth of July. After some reworking, the stanzas of the poem become the lyrics of a song. A New Jersey composer, Samuel A. Ward, wrote the music. Over the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of “America the Beautiful” grew and grew, sung in churches, classrooms and patriotic festivals.

Charles recorded the song in 1972. In live performances he followed a consistent pattern, flavored by the improvisations we associate with gospel and soul music. He adds “I’m talkin’ about America” and “I love America, and you should too,” and “Sweet America,” fervent ornaments that offended the few but inspired the many — including my dad.

He begins his version, curiously, with the third of four verses, perhaps the least well-known.

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!

America!

America!

May God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness,

And every gain divine!

Written just three decades after the end of the Civil War, those lines evoke the most traditional tropes of America’s civic religion. They include the heroes who give their lives to protect the country and keep it free. They remind us that we are an exceptional country, blessed by God but imperfect in his eyes. Its gold must be refined. The second stanza prays that “God mend” America’s “every flaw.”

What happens next in the Ray Charles version is especially interesting. He speaks directly to the audience over the music, “When I was in school we used to say it something like this. …” Only then does he sing the original first verse, familiar to generations.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America!

America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

It invites the audience to sing along, and we often do, a call-and-response pattern familiar in many churches and a powerful expression of unity, community, love of country — with all its flaws. Sisterhood and brotherhood — from the man who liked to be called not a genius, but “Brother Ray.”

It should be obvious by now that I love Ray’s version. When I sit down at my 100-year-old upright piano and try to play it the way he did, I always wind up crying. But I love “The Star-Spangled Banner” too, even with all those bombs bursting and its two challenging high notes.

There are hundreds of interesting versions, many available on YouTube, including ones in which African-Americans have offered their special take. We know what Jimi Hendrix did with his magical guitar in 1969 at Woodstock. In 1983, Marvin Gaye shocked the world with his slow-jam version before the NBA All-Star Game, the only version of the anthem I have ever seen in which the audience was moved to rhythmically clap along. Whitney Houston gave us the most elegant version before the 1991 Super Bowl. Maybe my favorite anthem moment was provided in 2003 by NBA coach Maurice Cheeks, who rushed to the rescue of a 13-year-old girl who forgot the lyrics. Mike Lupica once referred to this move, by the former point guard, as Cheeks’ “greatest assist.”

I am not advocating replacing the national anthem. I am proposing, instead, that some group (the NFL, MLB, Congress, the Georgia state legislature, ESPN) offer the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” as our hymn of national unity and racial reconciliation. My dream is to one day attend an NFL football game when, at halftime, an image appears on the screen. It is Ray Charles at the piano. As he sings and swings, and hums and prays, we see a montage of images: Americans, including professional athletes, working to help each other through storm and strife. Working across difference to find unity and build community. From sea to shining sea.

Athletes and teams show respect to 9/11 victims, first-responders 16 years later #NeverForget still lives strong on social media

Every year the NFL season opener intertwines with the anniversary of Sept. 11. On this 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, many athletes are using their social media platforms to show their respect and remembrance. This year, as the world is dealing with hurricanes and a tough racial climate, the hashtag #NeverForget has proved to be a strong act of solidarity.

On Sunday, the day before 9/11, Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate honored first-responders by wearing personalized cleats. He posted a photo on his Instagram page showing an image of first-responders and the American flag on one shoe and an image of the Twin Towers on the other shoe. On both shoes, a message, “Land of the Free” and “Because of the Brave,” is visible.

Instagram Photo

Check out a few other athletes who posted on their social media pages.

9/11 attack still haunts and defines us But eventually, like Pearl Harbor and the 1929 crash, it will retreat into history

Today is the second Monday in September. It’s the 254th day of the year. It’s also the day on which Christopher Brian Bridges, the rapper and actor better known as Ludacris, celebrates his 40th birthday.

But in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world, this is 9/11, the 16th anniversary of the terror attacks in 2001 that wrenched our nation from its moorings and sent it tumbling into space. And it would be ludicrous to view today in any other context: The horrors of the event still haunt us, its heroes still ennoble us.

For most adult Americans, 9/11 is a date that will live in infamy, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt said Dec. 7, 1941, would.

And for decades, Dec. 7 did live in the memories and fears and worldviews of the men and women who came of age when the world was at war.

Even during the 1990s, old men would call or write The Hartford Courant, my employer at the time, to complain that the newspaper hadn’t done enough to commemorate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one of the defining events of their lives and one of the defining events in American history.

To those making the complaints, it was as if the younger generation, my generation, didn’t understand the evil that Japan, Germany and Italy had unleashed upon the world during World War II, the evil the elders fought with such courage and determination.

When society no longer appears to be defined by the events of your past, your generation is well on the way to getting old and being forgotten and discarded. During the 1990s, the World War II generation wasn’t ready to be tossed aside. No generation is.

Still, by the 1990s, the World War II generation’s triumph over the Axis powers had faded and yellowed in the national memory album. Dec. 7, 1941, just like Oct. 29, 1929 — the date the U.S. stock market crashed, signaling the Great Depression — had become an entry in the history books for baby boomers and their children.

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It seems unlikely now, but something similar will happen with 9/11. If we are diligent and lucky, future generations will think of 9/11, if it is thought of at all, as the violence that came before peace. Or, perhaps more chilling, a new date, with its own scarlet letters and haunting numbers, will displace 9/11 and define how a future generation will look at the world.

Next year, the nation’s baby boomers in their 60s and early 70s, in one of their last hurrahs, will mark the 50th anniversary of 1968, a year of trauma and turmoil, a year unlike any other to those who lived through it. Fifty years from now, some millennials will look at 2017 the same way.

Each generation yields to the conceit and the deception that it has lived through the best and worst of times. It imagines a past, its tragedies and triumphs, that can be packed in a box and stored in society’s attic.

But William Faulkner knew that the past lay at the foundation of the present: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then-Sen. Barack Obama made reference to those words in his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech: “We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”

Faulkner and Obama’s words echoed anew when a car plowed into Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month, making her a 21st-century victim of the 19th-century Civil War.

As Faulkner knew and Obama understood, current events are deeply rooted in the past: a past of cries and whispers, a past of punishing silences, a past that haunts and shapes us on 9/11 from beyond the grave, if we let it.